New Delhi: On February 1, 2018, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is all set to present its last full budget before the next general elections to be held in 2019. Expectations and speculations are rife on what this budget will bring for the social sector. A look at the past trends of flagship social sector schemes suggests that while housing, sanitation and rural employment are likely to get a push, the need of the hour is to have a clear strategy and priority for education, health and nutrition.

The infrastructure push: Sanitation and housing

With only one and a half years left for the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) to achieve its target of an open defecation-free (ODF) India by 2019, toilet construction is likely to gain momentum. At the start of the mission in October 2014, the government had set itself a target of constructing 10.4 million individual toilets and 507,587 community and public toilet seats in urban areas, by 2019. The corresponding target in rural areas to ensure universal access was 104 million.

While the target for household toilets in urban areas was revised downwards to 6.64 million last year, there is still a long way to go in ensuring even universal toilet access.

Up to 42% of cities have declared themselves ODF and 4.27 million individual household toilets and 243,152 community and public toilet “seats”--as the government calls them--had been completed in urban areas across India by November 2017, according to the latest available official data.

This comprises 64% of the revised mission target for household toilets and less than half for community and public toilets. Given that allocations for the scheme have remained low and were unchanged in 2017-18, the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban is likely to get a financial push.

Progress has been faster in rural areas. Till January 29, 2018, 66 million toilets had been built, giving 77% of rural Indians access, according to official data.

However, while allocations for Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin (SBM-G) rose 33% in 2017-18, they have not kept pace with increased construction. The last few years have seen states spending more money than they had. As many as 11 states--including Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh--started the year with a negative balance, according to the latest budget brief from the Accountability Initiative. If momentum to construct the remaining 38 million toilets by March 2019 is to be sustained, allocations are bound to rise.

Source: [Format B2(a1)] Yearly financial status of expenditure for the Financial year (including unapproved) for Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin MIS as on January 29, 2018. Note: Includes both central and states’ share. Data are dynamic.

The other scheme that is likely to see an increase in allocations is the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana (PMAY)--urban and rural--the government’s ambitious programme to ensure “housing for all by 2022”. Under the rural arm of the scheme, the government provides Rs 120,000 per family for plain areas and Rs 130,000 for hilly areas to build a pucca (solid) house with basic amenities for those living in dilapidated and kutcha houses. By 2019, the programme aims to complete 10 million houses.

Despite a 44% increase in allocations for PMAY-Gramin, they remain far below the estimated central share. Based on these unit costs and targets, the Centre’s share in the cost estimate of Rs 1.3 lakh crore is Rs 81,975 crore. Between 2016-17 and 2017-18, the Centre had allocated only Rs 39,000 crore, or less than half its estimated share.

Given that over the remaining period till March 2019, 4 million more houses will need to be sanctioned and completed, the scheme is likely to continue getting priority.

Rural employment

Last year’s budget allocation under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) at Rs 48,000 crore was the highest ever since the scheme’s inception in 2006. Yet, the Centre’s allocations have not been able to keep pace with increased demand, resulting in states accumulating large amounts of pending payments. Till January 29, 2018, states had accumulated Rs 1,113 crore as pending wage payments, as per official data.

The government has received criticism for significant delays in wage payments: 56% wages were delayed and 15% wage seekers did not find work in 2016-17, as IndiaSpend reported on January 29, 2018.

The government’s calculations of wage delays has also been called into question. Contrary to government data that 85% payments were made on time (till September 12, 2017)--based on financial transfer orders, accounting for actual receipt to beneficiaries--only 32% of wage payments for the first two quarters of 2017-18 were made on time, the Wire reported on December 5, 2017.

Given the legal mandate of the MGNREGA--to ensure that workers receive payments on time amidst growing rural distress--the government is likely to make related announcements.

Education, health and nutrition

Just before the general elections in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in its manifesto, called for “empowering each and every Indian through health and education” and a “special focus.., on the children, especially the girl child, with regards to health, education and skills development”.

Yet, the government’s strategy on these sectors has been unclear.

The 2017 budget speech had little mention of school education, except to propose the introduction of a system to measure annual learning outcomes and an innovation fund for secondary education. A look at the allocations for the ministry of human resource development (MHRD) show a clear re-prioritisation of higher and tertiary education over school education. The share of higher education has consistently increased, from 34% in 2014-15 to 42% in 2017-18, while school education’s decreased from 66% to 58%.

Increasing Priority To Higher Education Over School Education
Department 2014-15 2015-16 2016-17 2017-18
Department of School Education and Literacy 46805 42186.5 43896 46356
Department of Higher Education 23700 25399 29703 33330
Share of higher education to total MHRD budget 34% 38% 40% 42%

Source: Calculated from Union Budget; Figures are revised estimates in Rs crore. For 2017-18, the figure is budget estimate.

From the new academic year, MHRD has decided to merge its three flagship education development programmes--Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) and Scheme of Restructuring and Reorganisation of Teacher Education (STE)--as per recent reports.

The strategy is in line with the recommendation of the NITI Aayog Committee on Restructuring Centrally Sponsored Schemes, which recommended a National Education Mission, with states having the flexibility to allocate funds across sub-schemes or sub-sectors, based on their needs. If this is implemented with adequate attention to increasing resources and capacity, it should give a much-needed boost to an under-prioritised sector.

Similarly, the government needs to give a boost to nutrition. The proportion of malnourished beneficiaries under the Integrated Child Development Services programme increased from 15% in March 2015 to 25% as of September 2017, according to data from a right-to-information inquiry by the Accountability Initiative.

In September 2017, the government announced an increase in funding for the Supplementary Nutrition Programme (SNP), from Rs 6 per day to Rs 8 per day per child for children aged between six months and six years; Rs 7 to Rs 9.50 per day for pregnant and lactating mothers; and Rs 9 to Rs 12 per day for severely malnourished children. This will require significantly higher resources. While the expenditure on SNP has been decreasing, it has remained consistently higher than approved budgets over the last few years, according to this Accountability Initiative analysis.

Source: Accountability Initiative, ICDS budget brief

The financial neglect of the nutrition sector is not new. In the 12th five-year plan, the Expenditure Finance Commission (EFC) had recommended Rs 1.23 lakh crore between 2012-2017. However, Rs 78,768 crore, or 64% of the EFC-approved number, was allocated, according to this August 11, 2017, response to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament. With a renewed commitment on nutrition, the hope is investments also follow.

Finally, a word on health: Last year, a deep dive into the National Health Mission budget revealed that while allocations for health system strengthening and tertiary care had increased, those for reproductive and child health budget had declined. While it is likely that there may be an increase or restructuring of insurance schemes in line with many of the recommendations on the National Health Policy, one can only hope that reproductive and child health is not neglected as a consequence.

(Kapur is Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and Director of the Accountability Initiative.)

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